Wednesday, January 2, 2019
Dido and Aeneas, alfresco in Rome
Over the holidays I watched one of the free Netflix offerings, “The Little Hours,” which is an intermittently amusing pseudo-medieval comedy loosely based in Boccaccio’s Decameron. It got me thinking about the importance of horny nuns to the European literary tradition, and the problems that tradition raises for the current search for the “authentic female voice” in our early literatures.
Before you had nuns you had widows, the most influential of whom was the Carthaginian queen, Widow Dido. Though committed to the memory and ashes of her murdered husband Sychaeus, she immediately feels a hormonal stirring when Aeneas rides into town. (He washes up on the beach, actually.) In one of Virgil’s great lines Dido confesses to her sister Anna: Adgnosco veteri vestigia flammae (iv. 23) “I recognize the signs of the old flame.” Here is the ancient origin of the still current phrase old flame; but note that in Virgil it means not a particular old boyfriend but eroticism itself. But there is such a thing as spiritual eroticism as well. Near the end of the Purgatorio the pilgrim Dante, sensing the proximity of Beatrice, says to Virgil: Conosco i segni dell’antica fiamma. Virgil would surely have recognized one of his own greatest lines, but it is precisely at this point (Purgatorio xxx, 48-49) that Virgil has disappeared from the poem like a whiff of smoke. “Types and shadows have their ending,” as the Pange lingua puts it, “for the newer rite is here.”
Dante’s “use” of Dido, which is enabled in part by the linguistic closeness of Latin to his Florentine vernacular, is particularly brilliant; but any European who could read knew Dido’s tragic history. After indulging in a torrid sexual affair with her—which she called a “marriage”—Aeneas dumped her and sailed away to do his boy thing (founding the Roman Empire). Crazed by love, Dido committed suicide. Thus she became literature’s most famous abandoned woman—and abandoned in the double sense of giving herself over completely to passion and of being scorned by a faithless lover. This literary version of the “abandoned woman” was given its classical expression in Ovid’s Heroides, a collection of the imaginary letter exchanges between famous abandoned women and the jerks who shafted them. Prominent among them are the purported letters of Dido. For a thousand years pre-pubescent boys had Latin drills based in the erotic language of the fourth book of the Æneid. Augustine writes about it. So there is a great deal of the “voicing” of abandoned women, and all of it written by males, and all of it deriving ultimately from the male schools of classical Antiquity.
Abelard and Heloise, from a MS of the Roman de la Rose
Fast-forward to the first half of the twelfth century. In general the social conditions of women have not changed dramatically since Ovid’s day. It’s still a man’s world. But Christianization has created at least one very important innovation in this regard: the female religious house. In the thousands of nunneries of medieval Europe tens of thousands of women live by votive principle in single-sex communities having as little commerce with men as is practically possible. In these houses there are often important functions, “leadership roles” of teaching and administration, of financial management, of artisanal crafts that perforce have to be undertaken by women. From this situation arises a paradox. A form of life seemingly designed to demand maximal denial of, and impose maximal constraints upon its followers in fact enables many women to flourish in ways that would never be open to them in the world beyond the cloister. This is particularly true, perhaps, in the sphere of letters. Virginia Woolf famously yearned for “a room of her own.” In the Middle Ages it was fairly easy for a woman to get one, if it was a cell. So we get a Hrotsvitha, the learned tenth-century canoness of Gandersheim, and the author of erudite Latin dramas on the model of those of Plautus and Terence. In the twelfth century we get the polymath genius Hildegard of Bingen, a Benedictine nun who was among other things a poet, a musician, a scientist, and a speculative theologian.
This brings us to one of the most celebrated literary episodes of the Middle Ages, and back to horny nuns. I refer to the famous dossier of “correspondence” between Abelard and Heloise. Concerning this famous dossier I am a heretic, for I do not believe that Heloise’s letters are any more “real” than Dido’s letters in the Heroides. This is a blog post, not a scholarly essay, and I shall not argue the case. I freely admit that my heresy, which has proved on more than one occasion to be life-threatening when raised in the presence of feminist scholars, is a distinctly minority view; but I have to call them like I see them. One of Heloise’s great lines to Abelard is this: “Even if I could be Queen to the Emperor and have all the power and riches in the world, I’d rather be your whore.” That is one horny nun, and in its level of abandonment the “authentic voice” sounds to me like that of Ovid.
Be that as it may, the Abelard-Heloise correspondence had a huge fictional posterity. It is not going too far to see in it a precursor of the epistolary novel, which became so prominent in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries with writers like Richardson in Pamela and Choderlos de Laclos in Les liaisons dangereuses. The horny nun also became a staple of the love literature of those centuries. The most famous of a dozen examples is probably the Portuguese Letters (Lettres portugaises traduites en français) first published in Paris in 1669. The purportedly “authentic voice” of the letters was that of a jilted Portuguese nun named Mariana Alcoforado. The actual author was a French libertine and Ovid-reader named Gabriel de Lavergne, sieur de Guilleragues. Another male fantasy, actually.